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Oct 4

Uncanny Avengers vol 5 – “Axis Prelude”

Posted on Saturday, October 4, 2014 by Paul in x-axis

Uncanny Avengers officially ends with issue #25, though what this actually means is that it gets replaced first by Axis, and then by whatever relaunched version comes after Axis.

Since volume 4 of Uncanny Avengers ran through to issue #22, this presents the collections department with something of a problem.  Hence the unlikely-looking volume 5, “Axis Prelude”, which collects the final three issues of Uncanny Avengers, the two tie-in issues of Magneto (which will also be included in Magneto vol 2), and the entirely unrelated comedy issue Uncanny Avengers Annual #1.

Did we do the Annual when it came out?  I forget.  As I recall, it’s not very good.  It’s a Mojo story which thinks it’s being very clever and met by having a completely arbitrary non-plot, but continually lamp shading that fact.  It’s a joke that quickly wears thin.

That aside, what we have here is a transition between larger stories.  Issue #23 is largely aftermath from the previous arc, with the characters adjusting to their new status quo.  This basically means Alex being horribly scarred, he and Janet remembering the daughter they had in the deleted future timeline (who is presumably still out there somewhere in Kang’s custody), and Rogue having Wonder Man stuck in her head.  All of which is basically fine.  I’m not particularly thrilled about going back to a variant of Rogue’s old status quo – once you’ve already done the story about her maturing and gaining control, you can’t really re-tread that ground with this version of the character.  If you want to do that story again, what you really need is a reboot.  But once the decision has been taken to go this route, the book does it as well as can be expected.

After that, it’s a four-issue crossover with Magneto, billed as a direct lead-in to Axis.  And for once that billing is perfectly fair; the end of issue #25 is indeed a major plot point leading into the big crossover.

The Avengers issues have the Red Skull kidnapping Rogue, Wanda and Alex to Genosha, where he’s set up a mutant concentration camp.  This doesn’t go as well as he might have expected, because he hasn’t allowed for Rogue having Wonder Man’s powers.  Meanwhile, over in his own title, Magneto makes his own attempt to kill the Skull, and gets captured.  That leads to the Avengers rescuing him so that he can join the big confrontation with the baddie in issue #25.

If a crossover between Uncanny Avengers and Magneto sounds like a horrendous style clash… well, yup, it pretty much is.  Uncanny Avengers is, at heart, a superhero team book of the 1970s and 80s, given a 21st century polish by the contemporary art.  Magneto pitches itself as a more brittle character piece, a little bit removed from the superhero house style.  Purely in plot terms, a crossover seems like it ought to make sense; Magneto is Wanda’s father, and the Red Skull fits with Magneto’s background, what with him being a Nazi war criminal.  But the tone of both books winds up muddled.

Uncanny Avengers is not a book that’s particularly interested in the psychology of its villains.  For the most part, it’s perfectly content to go with the idea that the Red Skull does evil things because he’s evil.  He’s not evil for any particular reason, or at least, the reasons why he is evil are not of interest to the series.  He’s a force and a threat for other characters to respond to, and that’s basically all.

Magneto isn’t that bothered about the inner life of Nazis either, but it certainly is concerned with the inner life of Magneto and the way he’s been damaged by his past.  It acknowledges that it’s dealing with a character who has come to take on many of the features of the people he hates (and where that hate drives him as a character).  It doesn’t treat his single-minded obsessiveness as necessarily making him a villain, but it does see it as something that makes him unnervingly like a villain, even today.  And it sees Magneto’s own lack of interest in the psychology of his opponents as part of the problem with him.

So bringing these two titles together to do a Red Skull story poses a problem, and for the most part it’s Magneto that comes off worst.  It’s not a series that really wants to be doing stories with major Marvel Universe figures to start with, and it would rather prefer its Nazis to take the form of realistic figures, not demented cartoons in skull masks.

In fact, Uncanny Avengers is right in its approach to the Red Skull.  He’s an outrageously malevolent icon of evil.  He doesn’t function well as a rounded character, and his creators never really intended him to.  After all, he’s a Nazi villain from the heyday of propaganda.  If he had a moustache he’d be twirling it constantly.   This doesn’t make him a bad character; but it does make him a character who isn’t at home in Magneto.  When you stick him in a setting of huts and tortured prisoners, you’re evoking the grotesquerie of concentration camps.  But the Red Skull is a different sort of camp entirely.  They don’t go well together.

Still, Uncanny Avengers does find some use for Magneto as a guest star.  There are some good ideas in here about his awkward pseudo-relationship with his daughter Wanda – as she points out, Magneto has occasionally tried to be a better person for Xavier, or the X-Men, but never for her.  She’s just not that important to him.  More broadly, Remender uses Magneto to play into the book’s usual theme of the need for unity.  Magneto is locked firmly in the cycle of hate, or at least that’s how the Avengers see it.  From his standpoint, killing the baddies is a necessary exercise in clearing away the obstacles to a future peace.  But given the amount of hate the character has, there’s obviously a lot of rationalisation in there.  Magneto is all too willing to come up with reasons not to rise above things.

This builds to a rather wonky finale, in which Magneto actually does kill the Red Skull, only to find that this releases the Skull as the new Onslaught.  It’s a nice enough twist in its way, not least because it actually delivers on the “Axis prelude” billing in a way I never really expected the story to do.  Okay, it’s Onslaught, and much like the sixties, if you fondly remember Onslaught, you weren’t there.  The original story is a catastrophe from start to finish – an extended tease for a character whose details hadn’t actually been worked out, belatedly swerving into an incoherently plotted story that was simply an excuse to set up the Heroes Reborn line (which had nothing to do with the X-Men).  But the flip side is that it’s almost inevitable that the second attempt will do it better.  The bar has been set so low that they had to excavate.

Does it work beyond the surprise factor?  The way it’s structured, the idea certainly seems to be that Magneto has transgressed by deliberately killing a bad guy, and is getting his comeuppance for that.  This is slightly tricky territory, since the “heroes don’t kill” trope has the downside of not actually making any sense.  An absolute prohibition on lethal force doesn’t match up with any ethical code people apply in the real world, and it doesn’t even make sense within the logic of the Marvel Universe.  (Captain America was desperate to enlist in the US military – how can he possibly be a non-lethal absolutist?)  You could make a case that Magneto kills the Skull unnecessarily, but given the scale of the threat he poses and the absence of any clear means of containing him, it wouldn’t be a very good one.

Ultimately, the “heroes don’t kill” thing isn’t an ethical principle so much as a genre convention tied to the idea that superheroes are simply better – just as they can do impossible things, they can (and therefore should) hold themselves to impossible ethical standards.  And this is fine, I guess, if you use it as a vehicle to do stories about people crossing ethical lines, rather than seriously trying to push it as a moral in its own right.  It works, in other words, if you get everyone to buy it as a sort of metaphor for real-world compromise that allows superheroes to cross a moral line without straying too far beyond PG territory.

But this sort of artificial ethics sits a little uneasily next to the concentration camp stuff, for my money.  This may well be the idea – issue #23 goes out of its way to remind us that Wolverine is a killer and that he’d be willing to kill the Skull too, so Remender doesn’t seem to think that Magneto’s behaviour is somehow entirely beyond the pale.  At any rate, the message ends up feeling more than a little confused.  There’s a symbolic logic to what’s going on here, but it’s not one that feels quite consistent even within the series.

Frankly, there’s another point hanging over these issues as far as I’m concerned, which is that I can’t honestly claim to be remotely excited about Axis.  Yes, as I’ve acknowledged, Onslaught II can hardly be worse than Onslaught I.  But neither the Skull nor Onslaught are inherently interesting threats – Onslaught is actively the opposite of interesting – and I’m kind of dreading months of stories with variations on the same “here’s a character with a central trait reversed” theme.  I’m not convinced that’s anywhere near a strong enough idea to carry the volume of material that’s apparently being asked of it.  We’ll see, though.

There are plenty of good moments in these issues – they certainly aren’t bad, and in plot terms they do what they were designed to do.  But there’s a mismatch of elements in here that stops things from quite working smoothly.

Bring on the comments

  1. Suckmaster Burstingfoam says:

    I, for one, belive that Spider-Man’s arch-enemy is … oh, I dunno, Electro.


  2. Al says:

    Well, this got lively.

  3. Lawrence says:

    Red Skull’s telepathic hate waves hit the comments section!

    An Uncanny Avengers/House to Astonish event!

  4. Jeff says:

    I can’t believe I’m going to wade into these waters, but here we go. I think Norman Osborn is probably Spider-Man’s archnemesis from a standpoint of all the awful stuff he’s done to Peter. But it’s gotten to the point now that, much like the Joker, he has to do some new awful thing to Spider-Man with each new appearance and then never really gets beat, which isn’t really what I like to read in Spider-Man. Peter’s supposed to have “Parker luck” but Spider-Man’s actually supposed to be a competent, fun hero to read about and the recent Norman stories just don’t have that any more.

    So in short, Doc Ock may not be the archnemesis, but I think he’s a better character, has more original powers and the Spider-Man stories he’s in can still be fun, so I like him better.

    Sticking to Paul’s post: I just read Axis without reading the prelude and feel like I basically missed the first part of the story. I still kind of liked it in a “this is really dumb, but still fun” way.

  5. I suppose the important thing is that we agree Spider-Man’s arch enemy isn’t Morlun. (disclaimer: not particularly important)

  6. ZZZ says:

    I think it’s always kind of felt to me like Doc Ock and Osborn were to Spider-Man the way, say, the Joker and R’as al Ghul are to Batman, or Lex Luthor and Darkseid are to Superman or Dr. Doom and Galactus are to the FF, or Magneto (when he’s not a good guy) and the Shadow King are to Professor X; one is the most persistent and dangerous of the foes they fight all the time, and the other is the most dangerous foe they have that they only fight occasionally, but when they do it’s a big deal. (That might not mesh with the way Osborn was when the Green Goblin first showed up, but I didn’t get into Spider-Man until well after the death of Gwen Stacy).

  7. Chris says:

    When I was a kid reading comics…. and this is going to seem weird so let me be specific.

    I was born in 1981. I learned to read through 1970s Spider-Man comics around 1984 through 1987. Up through 1993 or so my usual batch of comic books that I read were from 1977 to 1985 or so. Then some early 1990s and later 1980s comics were dropping in around 1992 to 1994.

    Anyway, my point is that when I first started reading comic books the Green Goblin was a historical villain from the distant past, three years before the earliest Spidey comic I owned, and Gwen Stacy was not really relevant. Deb Whitman, Sissy Ironwood, and Mary Jane Watson were all relevant. Somewhere around 1989 or 1991 I got three Pocket books collections of the first 21 appearances of the Amazing Spider-Man, give or take, minus the annual. In these historic tomes, Betty Brant was the love interest and Doctor Octopus was the deadliest foe.

    And in the cartoons Doctor Octopus was the deadliest foe.

    And in my comics he was the archenemy.

    Norman Osborn was from the prehistory, and while being the one villain that knew his identity gave him a uniqueness that was a hook by itself, it did not make him his archenemy…. a villain with 8 limbs that was a superscientist that could tear Spidey’s head off with any four of his limbs certainly was.

    Octopi had 8 limbs. Spiders had 8 limbs. My childish logic was perfect.

    I’ll bow to Omar’s judgment or anyone that was actually alive before 1981. But Doctor Octopus never had a twenty year publishing hole.

    On the other hand he seems to have been retconned weaker and Osborn retconned stronger.

    Look what Fraction did with Doc Ock in INVINCIBLE IRON MAN. A disgrace.

  8. Chris says:

    Also, Magneto was the arch-enemy of the X-Men from the original to the New up to a point and then Mister Sinister was the arch-enemy of the X-Men… when Mr Sinister was the archenemy of the X-Men, Apocalypse was the archenemy of the original X-Men called X-Factor. Magneto then led the New Mutants.

    Damn. I used to have a clearer memory of this. Then came X-Force and Stryfe. Where the heck do I fit in the Hellfire Club?

  9. The original Matt says:

    The hellfire club fit between Magneto and Sinister. After the Dark Pheonix Saga, Magneto had 1 more villainous appearance – at least in the X-book, I certainly have no idea about appearances elsewhere – and I’m certain that was the one that started rounding out his back story. (Issue 150…)

    Magneto was never really the arch foe of the international team, to me, anyway. The 3 times he fought them, he was just content to beat up anyone with an X on their belt.

    Have the X-Men had an “arch” foe since before Morrison? Seems they’ve gone a while without a scheming villain behind everything.

  10. Omar Karindu says:

    Have the X-Men had an “arch” foe since before Morrison? Seems they’ve gone a while without a scheming villain behind everything.

    The post-Schism line had book-specific archfoes. Jason Aaron’s volume of Wolverine and the X-Men had the Hellfire Kids as the villains of virtually every arc, for example, and Mystique seems to be the primary antagonist in the current Bendis books, since she’s there scheming in every arc and even the ancillary threats — like the Future Brotherhood — turn out to be the results of her actions.

  11. The original Matt says:

    Ah, of course, the Hellfire brats. And there was that alien something or other dude in Uncanny vol 2. When I posted that all I could think was the Logan/Scott divide post schism, and all the we’re going extinct/Scott is becoming magneto stuff after HoM.

    They all feel like footnotes to the extinction/schism story, though.

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